On a recent Saturday evening in Cedar, Michigan, about 40 guys are gathered in the home of Jeff Smith, the editor of Traverse magazine. The night is centered around beer and poetry. The beverage of choice is from the recently opened Lake Ann Brewing Company. The poet is Mike Delp.
Mike Delp has a new book titled Lying in the River’s Dark Bed. It’s what he calls the confluence of the Deadman and the Mad Angler— characters he’s has been crafting for years.
He says the Mad Angler, who was inspired by Wendell Berry’s The Mad Farmer Poems, is concerned with preserving water, especially in the Great Lakes Basin.
“The Mad Angler is mad because he doesn’t like what’s going on with water, especially around this territory," says Delp to the roomful of men. "And you can write this down and you already know this, they’re coming to get it," he warns. "And if you let ‘em have it, we’re done.”
Delp says the people coming for the water are in places like Waukesha, Wisconsin, a town that wants to tap Lake Michigan for drinking water.
Then, there are threats to the lakes, like Line 5, an oil pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac.
Although he hesitates to call himself the Mad Angler, Mike Delp is an avid fly fisherman.
He says much of his writing comes from experiences on rivers, but he never goes out into nature for the specific purpose of finding inspiration for a poem.
Lying in the River’s Dark Bed is his newest book. It contains three different collections of poems. One about the Mad Angler, one about the Deadman and then a prose section where both characters meet and interact.
Mike Delp says the Deadman is the more volatile character, who pushes conventions.
In one poem, the Deadman stares down John Wayne, threatens him with his Colt .45 and says he’ll "let some air outta’" [his] chest. Delp says the Deadman’s attitude is, “if it offends you, don’t read it.”
It was many years ago that the Deadman came to be in a rather haunting way. Delp was writing late at night in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Then, he remembers hearing something at his door.
“I hear this pounding on the door," he says. "And this force comes in the room and it says, 'I’m writing these poems now; you’re not going to write anymore.'"
Mike Delp insists that event really happened. But he also acknowledges there isn’t a huge barrier between his imagination and the real world when it comes to his writing.
He recalls a time he was out fishing when a Heron flew over his head. He imagined the bird going right through him and later wrote a poem about it.
"To me there’s almost no difference between the fact that it didn’t go through me as I imagined that it did— those are almost equal things to me," explains Delp. "So, if I say in a poem, ‘A Blue Heron flew through me,’ it did. I mean, I’m not making that up."
He says it's real to him in a sense because it's real in his imagination.
There’s an old saw about creative writing that says you can lie about a fact to reveal an emotional truth. Mike Delp says a lot of people will come up to creative writers and ask, ‘Is that true?’
“And I’ll say, ‘Yes— no.’ But it’s all true to me, it’s all true," he says. "Is it literally true? You have to decide that; it is to me.”
Next Saturday, Mike Delp will be reading some of his poetry at Horizon Books in Traverse City.